NEWARK, N.J. — The National Collegiate Athletic Association and its five dominant conferences are an "unlawful cartel" that has illegally restricted the earning power of football and men’s basketball players while making billions off their labour, according to a federal lawsuit filed Monday that seeks to paint big-time college athletics as being in blatant violation of antitrust laws.
The suit comes on the eve of the NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament, college sports’ most prominent showcase. In addition to the NCAA, the lawsuit targets the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12, and seeks monetary damages as well as a declaration that the defendants’ practices violate federal antitrust laws.
"As a result of these illegal restrictions, market forces have been shoved aside and substantial damages have been inflicted upon a host of college athletes whose services have yielded riches only for others," according to the court filing. "This class action is necessary to end the NCAA’s unlawful cartel, which is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of antitrust law."
The suit seeks triple damages for the four plaintiffs — Rutgers basketball player Johnathan "J.J." Moore, Clemson football player Martin Jenkins, Texas-El Paso football player Kevin Perry and California football player William Tyndall — based on the economic harm they say they suffered. The court filing estimated that, for instance, Clemson’s athletic department "generated more than $70 million in revenue, the vast majority of which came from football" in 2012 when Jenkins was playing.
The firm of Winston & Strawn -- which includes Jeffrey Kessler, widely known for his success record in representing players and unions in many sports -- is representing the four plaintiffs, none of whom would be considered stars at the college level.
"It helps immensely" to have Kessler involved, said Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association, a group that supports the suit. "For one, I think people are going to take it seriously. I think players will take it seriously. And importantly, I think the NCAA will take it seriously."
The suit also seeks an injunction to stop the NCAA from prohibiting any of its member institutions from negotiating to give or providing compensation to football and basketball players and rejected the argument that the current rules ensure competitive balance.
"Defendants' price-fixing agreement and group boycott is a naked restraint of trade without any pro-competitive purpose or effect," the suit said.
An NCAA spokeswoman didn't immediately comment on the lawsuit.
"I don't think that paying a salary is either in the interest of student-athletes or their universities or of college sports or in the public interest," former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, now the chair of Georgetown's board of directors, said Monday while appearing with Huma and others at a meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in Miami.
Other athletes have challenged the NCAA's rules governing compensation for student-athletes. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon has led a long-running legal battle against the NCAA over, among other things, the unauthorized use of college athletes' likenesses in video games. Video-game maker Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company reached a settlement with the plaintiffs last fall, but the case against the NCAA is scheduled to go to trial barring a settlement.
This month, former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston filed a suit against the NCAA and the five major conferences making similar claims to those contained in Monday's filing.
And Northwestern University football players are trying to form what would be the first college athletes' union in U.S. history. Attorneys have said the regimented structure of football at the school essentially makes it a business, and the relationship between the school and the players is that of an employer to employees.
"There should be a moral compass," Huma said. "Players should not be denied their rights."
Monday's filing cited past legal actions in which it says the NCAA has been found to have committed antitrust violations, including lawsuits involving the limiting of football television broadcasts in the 1980s and the capping of part-time coaches' salaries in the 1990s. It also referred to a lawsuit that charged the NCAA with engaging in anticompetitive behaviour against the competing National Invitation Tournament, which resulted in the NCAA's paying a settlement to the plaintiff schools.